Culture / Sporting Life

No. 2 Ranked Recruit in America Enjoys the Fertitta Center’s Every Game Magic — Inside Kelvin Sampson’s Houston Basketball Paradise

Caleb Holt Isn't the Only One Who Wants to Be at UH Games These Days

BY // 01.02.24

Caleb Holt — the No. 2 ranked player high school basketball player in America in the 2026 class — is in the Fertitta Center, taking in the charged atmosphere that Kelvin Sampson’s powerhouse University of Houston program created. Texans wideout Tank Dell is here too, sitting right in front of the UH students who he used to go to class with. Across the way, Fabian White Jr. — one of the foundational pillars of this program’s rise — shares a moment with Houston’s do-everything director of basketball operations Lauren Sampson.

Holt, an uber athletic 6-foot-5 highlight reel, has Sampson’s UH program on his early short list along with his home state Auburn and Alabama, Georgia and Ole Miss (with North Carolina possibly lurking). That’s a testament to what an elite national power Sampson has built Houston into, one that’s already proven it can land McDonald’s All-Americans and get them to the NBA (see Jarace Walker). But it also shows how UH’s game day basketball atmosphere is nothing but a daily asset now.

No one is worried that Caleb Holt chose to come for a game against Penn (a non-marquee opponent for those Power 5 program obsessed) on the day before New Year’s Eve when the University of Houston is on a holiday break. Because every game Kelvin Sampson’s program plays these days is an event.

“It was the first thing I told our recruits,” UH assistant coach Kellen Sampson tells PaperCity of a group that included more than Holt. “How about this environment and crowd for a 6 pm tip on the Saturday before New Year’s Eve? When you know, no students. And a lot of schools’ crowds are sleepy. Especially if you’re not playing a particularly noteworthy opponent.

“I thought it was electric in there. . . At every time, we’re seeing this. I thought that environment for A&M (at the Toyota Center) was as electric as a neutral site game as we’ve had. And it felt like a Cougar NCAA Tournament turnout. And I’m just so so — as we’ve been working and putting our nose to the grindstone and trying to build a program that can compete on the national stage, I’m so so thankful and humbled that our fans have continued to rise up with us and have answered the bell and keep showing up.”

Kellen Sampson looks at the UH basketball crowds as another recruiting weapon these days.

“It means so much to our guys and us,” Houston’s coach in waiting says. “And it means a lot in recruiting.”

Being a Top 10 team for the fourth straight season also means plenty. It is a status that cannot be bought, only earned. And this Houston team keeps validating its rarefied national standing by taking care of its business with a seriousness that the most coffee-obsessed business closer could appreciate. Take the 81-42 blowout of Penn that moves the Cougars to 13-0 heading into the Big 12 opener vs. West Virginia on Saturday. Jamal Shead, LJ Cryer and Co. do not just win, they jump out to an 18-0 lead before the would be Ivy League upstarts even know what has hit them. This is how you squeeze the will out of an opponent.

By forcing Penn to commit more turnovers (seven) than it can even get shots off (six, all misses) in this opening onslaught, Houston turns a dangerous team that beat Villanova and trailed No. 6 Kentucky by two points with 10 minutes remaining into a team that just wants its mom.

University of Houston Cougars beat the Penn Quakers at the Fertitta Center, Saturday December 13, 2023
University of Houston’s defense is relentless with Emanuel Sharp (No. 21) and Ja’Vier Francis all in. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

It turns out UH’s starters receive all the sense of urgency they need from a butt kicking delivered by the Cougars’ second team in practice a few days earlier. That reserve team of Mylik Wilson, Damian Dunn, Ramon Walker Jr., Ryan Elvin and an alternating Cedric Lath and Jacob McFarland took it to the starting unit of Shead, Cryer, Emanuel Sharp, Ja’Vier Francis and freshman wonder JoJo Tugler. Without mercy.

“They punched ’em,” Kellen Sampson says. “They were running Penn stuff and they punished (the starters). And having a bench that is as capable in a practice setting, helping your first team, I think is the secret sauce to how you have continued steady improvement throughout the year.

“They gave it to ’em bad. And the red (first) team ended up having to run and they got some good choice words said to them. And the red team had to respond.”

Penn gets the worst of the response in another Fertitta Center party evening. UH chancellor and president Renu Khator, who brings her husband and kids to the game, even dances with the mascots at one point. Everyone feels good around Kelvin Sampson’s program, enjoying the results of the relentless hard work and battles won by this coach behind the scene.

“It’s just really exciting to be at Cougar basketball right now,” Khator tells PaperCity. “Such a show they put up. So much athleticism. And such a spirit that is just fun to watch. During the teeth of the holidays and the hall is sold out and actually filled. I mean this is what we were hoping for.

“This is dream we were chasing.”

“It was the first thing I told our recruits. How about this environment and crowd for a 6 pm tip on the Saturday before New Year’s Eve? When you know, no students. And a lot of schools’ crowds are sleepy.” — UH assistant coach Kellen Sampson

Lauren Sampson, The UH Atmosphere Builder

Lauren Sampson, one of the main brick layers of this Houston basketball nirvana, found herself looking around the Fertitta Center during the two holiday break games (Texas State before Christmas, Penn before New Year’s Eve), to take in the crowd. And the energy. Which even the No. 2 ranked high school player in America can appreciate.

Of course, Lauren Sampson knows what it took to get to this point. The hard work of getting in front of University of Houston students who didn’t know anything about Cougar basketball before the Sampsons arrived in The Third Ward. Some of them even expressed surprise that Houston had a basketball team. Still, Lauren Sampson persisted in engaging one on one, urging students to attend games, taking a No as a win.

“A No was great,” Lauren Sampson tells PaperCity. “Because it meant I could get you talking and create a dialogue.”

University of Houston Cougars beat the Penn Quakers at the Fertitta Center, Saturday December 13, 2023
University of Houston president Renu Khator loves the atmosphere that Kelvin Sampson’s basketball program has produced. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

Lauren Sampson got her dad to get on a bullhorn, had him go door to door in UH dorms and frat houses. She asked every student she talked to what they wanted, but would make their lives a little easier. Many wanted a card holder for their cellphones — a place to store the UH school ID they needed to bring almost everywhere. So Lauren Sampson started handing out UH card holders with the basketball schedule tucked inside the pocket.

This is the slow person-to-person work that helps to build a fan base, the foundation that came before the constant winning. It is part of what makes the Fertitta Center such a scene today, one that cannot help but impress even those transferring in from other programs with a storied history. Damian Dunn comes from Temple, a place that helped changed college basketball under John Chaney back in the day. But Dunn will tell you that playing a game at the Fertitta Center is a much more exciting environment than playing a game at Temple’s 10,200 seat on-campus arena dubbed The Liacouras Center.

“You probably wouldn’t expect the crowd to come to a UPenn game here at Fertitta,” says Dunn, whose three steals help drive the Quakers mad in a 14 steal Houston night. “But look at it. That’s something I’m thankful for because people want to see this team play all the time — no matter the opponent.

“. . . You get to feel the energy a little bit more. I like that.”

Kelvin Sampson calls it “an every night crowd. Has been for a few years.”

“It’s just really exciting to be at Cougar basketball right now. Such a show they put up. So much athleticism. And such a spirit that is just fun to watch.” — UH president Renu Khator

University of Houston Cougars beat the Penn Quakers at the Fertitta Center, Saturday December 13, 2023
University of Houston guard Damian Dunn will help determine the ceiling of this particular Kelvin Sampson team. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

Now the Fertitta Center is about to become the home to Big 12 crowds, starting with this Saturday against West Virginia. Lauren Sampson is working on ways to make the most of this increased visibility too. While she doesn’t expect UH students to camp overnight for tickets like they do at a Duke or Kentucky (though the idea of Sampsonville to follow in the tradition of Krzyzewskiville sounds delightful), more activities for students outside and inside of the Fertitta Center are planned for a number of games, including that February 17th visit from the University of Texas.

This is how you keep basketball paradise growing. Expecting other sports programs at the University of Houston to be able to replicate this building may be farfetched though. Even the programs that have asked Lauren Sampson for advice often quickly pivot to another plan. One of the few that have latched on — women’s volleyball under fourth year coach David Rehr — not coincidently shattered its previous attendance record this season in drawing more than 7,000 fans, filling the Fertitta Center for a match with Texas.

Still, the marketing majors that most colleges turn out these days are so social media fixated (which UH basketball also does well) that the idea of doing the kind of person-to-person outreach that Lauren Sampson and her dad conducted sounds more foreign than a pamphlet written in Latin to them.

“What we did is a lot of work,” Lauren Sampson says.

It is not easy to create a college basketball paradise, but once you have it going you never know who will be drawn to it. Including perhaps the second ranked recruit in the country and transfers who want to be part of it.

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